To say my family has been blessed would be an understatement. In fact, if you look at the standard of living the vast majority of Americans (and much of Western society) enjoy it is absolutely staggering. For most of us, we live in the land of excess. We have houses packed to the gills with knick-knacks, memorabilia, hobby projects, clothes, food, gadgets, and more. In fact, sometimes our houses are so full of stuff that we have to start packing things into our garages. I’ve even seen this happen to such an extent that garages no longer house cars but instead boxes and boxes of unused junk. After the garages get full we rent storage units so that we can pay someone else to house our unused stuff.
When you stop to think about it for more than a few seconds our excess starts to seem, well, a bit excessive to say the least. Now before we get any further I need to make something clear: I am not in any way going to advocate for a poverty theology. Poverty theology makes the exact same theological mistake that prosperity theology does. Prosperity theology says you are somehow blessed and favored by God if you are rich and poverty theology says you are somehow blessed and favored by God if you are poor. Our righteousness comes not from riches or lack thereof but from Jesus.
So why is it such a big deal that we have so much stuff? There’s nothing inherently wrong with a few extra boxes of knick-knacks, right? True. But lets stop and think about what all that stuff represents.
- All that unused stuff represents a lot of extra money that is now sitting around rotting away in cardboard boxes. Those dollars could have been used for the advancement of the Gospel but now they are in a box full of stuff you haven’t even looked at in a decade.
- All that extra stuff makes you very immobile. We Christians often give ourselves a pass. We’ll live our lives our way. We’ll go to church and maybe give a little money in the offering plate. We’ll maybe do a service project or mission trip or two. Nothing too dramatic or taxing because we don’t want our lifestyle to be too upset by the demands of our faith. But what if we really took the Bible seriously? What if we really believed that God could (and is perfectly within His rights to do so) call any one of us at any time away from the life we know so some other place in service of the Kingdom? Suddenly, all that extra stuff makes pulling up stakes and relocating a lot more difficult. We like to think God would never ask us to do that, but the truth is, He’s already called us to radical discipleship. He’s already called us not to be entangled in the things of the world (2 Timothy 2:1-10). He’s already given us the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). He’s already made sure we know that in following Him we should not expect a life of leisure but rather a life of sacrifice (Luke 9:23-26). Knowing what the Bible says and the things that God has clearly called all Christians to do, can we really justify living our lives in a way that might be at odds with those things?
- All that stuff can become an idol. We buy more and more stuff so that we can feel better about ourselves and better about our lives (Ever heard of retail therapy?). We buy more and more stuff so that we can keep up with our neighbors down the street. We go into fantastic levels of debt to buy everything from clothes and food to cars and TVs. We spend, spend, spend, spend on more and more things that will break, become obsolete, and ultimately leave us seeking the next big thing. It is a brutal and sometimes idolatrous cycle that can leave Christians unable to give generously of their time and resources to Kingdom work because they have to spend so much of their income servicing debt. They are such slaves to the debt that they have no extra money and they have to work so many extra hours in service to their debt masters that they have no time or energy to give to the Kingdom. Buying new things isn’t evil or sinful but if it hampers your ability to follow Jesus then that stuff has become an idol and instead of serving the Creator of the universe you are serving the cardboard boxes in your garage full of baseball cards or Precious Moments figurines.
So what can we do? Simplify. One of the advantages Laura and I have had in this regard is that we have moved a lot. When you have moved a lot and have gone through the process of packing up everything you own multiple times, you really begin to see what a burden having excessive things can become. More recently, I started to realize I had accumulated a ton of books, movies, and video games that I never used. They were literally sitting in boxes and taking up space. I sold them to Amazon. One of my biggest weaknesses in this area is technology. I’ve been endeavoring to simplify my technology life and become less enamored with the constant flow of newer and better phones, computers, tablets, etc. (I admit this is a very tough one for me and I’m certainly still a work in progress) “Excess” is going to look different from person to person but the chances are we all have many area we could simplify. Not only that, but as you begin to toss things (or give things away) and endeavor to simplify your life it will make the accumulation of stuff look much less appealing and that is a very good place to be.
So is all this just my opinion or is there some Scriptural guidelines that can help us as we prayerfully consider what this will look like in our own lives? One passage that comes quickly to mind is Mark 6:7-13. I’ve been studying this passage for my next sermon and I found it very interesting that Jesus sent out His disciples with very little.
7 And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— 9 but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Mk 6:7–13). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Is Jesus somehow saying that his disciples don’t need food, clothes, or money? Not at all. But it does show that the success of their mission will not be dependent upon their resources or abilities but rather on the authority of the one who sent them out. It shows that they are to be relying fully on Jesus and the power of the message he commissioned them to proclaim. He sends them out with the simplest of provisions so that they have to learn to trust in God’s provision.
Simplifying our lives and throwing away our junk is a very visible and visceral reminder that our lives are not our own. Our stuff is temporal and short-lived. Our lives are to be lived in service to God and not the American Dream. Our lifestyle should not in any way hamper us from being able to give of ourselves and our resources to the work of the Kingdom.
One final and personal thought on one of the intangibles of living a simple life. My grandmother passed away a little over a year ago. She lived the last part of her life in a little double wide home across the driveway from her youngest son and his family. Her house was not packed with knick-knacks and memorabilia but instead her many decades of life had been boiled down into the handful of things that were really important to her. An old Bible. A picture of my Grandpa. A wall that had framed photos of her many kids, grandkids, and great grandkids. When our family gathered in Washington for her funeral, my Mom and her brothers asked that if there was anything in Grandma’s house that was meaningful to a family member to go ahead and take it. There were not huge boxes of junk to sort through but it seemed like just about every person in our large family was able to find something that meant a lot to them and was tied to fond memories about Grandma. In pretty much every case it was something very small and very simple. For me, it was two small brown coffee mugs that I have associated with Grandma ever since I was a small child. I also took an old yellow blanket that I can always remember being at Grandma’s house. Simple things that mean a lot to me. When my life is done, I don’t want to leave my family with boxes of worthless junk to have to sort through and throw away. I want to be like my Grandma and leave countless good memories where something like a simple old coffee cup or little yellow blanket that leaves fuzz on everything serve as warm reminders of a life well lived.